Understanding the True Meaning of Freedom with John Paul II
Freedom is a unique concept, in that it’s at once abstract and vividly concrete. On the abstract level, it touches on philosophical/theological anthropology. What it means to be ‘free’ is part of the conversation of what it means to be human. Most often, however, vivid images come up in our minds when we think of freedom. This is where freedom becomes very concrete and visceral. Those images express the philosophical/theological groundwork while also being a potent source of emotion. What American can look at the raising of the stars & stripes at Iwo Jima and not be affected on some level? Mel Gibson’s motivational speech to his army of Scots in Braveheart is an iconic moment in cinema: “they may take our lives, but they can never take our freedom!” The secular culture around us loves the idea of freedom and its corresponding images, but it cannot truly grasp the concept as long as it rejects faith. Today, freedom is something everybody wants, not all attain, and even fewer understand.
What is missing? Even though it’s often perceived as a political topic, freedom reaches to the core of the human person. To understand St. John Paul II’s treatment of it, we have the starting point of his life as a young man, some foundational theological and philosophical principles, and the guides of his writings. The encyclicals that touched on freedom are: Redemptor Hominis (“The Redeemer of Man,” written at the very beginning of his pontificate), Fides et Ratio (“Faith & Reason,” on the relationship between faith and reason in philosophy & theology), Veritatis Splendor (“The Splendor of Truth,” on moral theology), and Evangelium Vitae (“The Gospel of Life,” on the value and inviolability of human life). Although freedom is not extensively treated in Love and Responsibility, it has a key place in that discussion. With the multitude of sources, we can see that John Paul’s examination of freedom includes the topics of faith, reason, morality, and love.
John Paul II’s Personal Background with Fascism & Totalitarianism
As great of a thinker as he was, John Paul’s perspective on freedom included more than his scholarly studies. He was a young man of 19 when Nazi Germany invaded Poland in 1939. The Nazis held control over the country through the end of the war, in 1945. The Nazi invasion interrupted young Karol Wojtyła’s college education. The Nazis immediately closed the Jagiellonian University that Karol attended, requiring all able-bodied males to work. (Source Link) While employed as a laborer, Karol entered the seminary in 1942 during the height of the war. For three years his studies were conducted underground. The Soviets overran Germany in 1945, but the Soviet “liberators” and the subsequent Yalta Conference placed the country under the firm control of the local communist party. (Source Link) The Soviets themselves didn’t occupy seats in the government, but they maintained de facto control over the country. And they kept close tabs on the young Fr. Karol. From his priestly ordination in 1946 through his consecration as bishop in 1958 to his election as pope in 1978, John Paul lived under constant surveillance by communist leaders. Even priests of his diocese served as informants. (Source Link)
This is the first layer in St. John Paul II’s conversations about freedom: they are not coming from the theoretical musings of an academic. Great suffering during World War II and the unending scrutiny of the communists informs all of his writings on the subject. It’s a testament to his spiritual fortitude that his times of suffering didn’t warp him. Rather than growing embittered toward God, Karol drew closer to Him.
With John Paul II’s personal background in place, the contributions of the Catholic intellectual tradition needs to be added to the background as well. Why is the definition of freedom so important? Like anything worth talking about, starting principles are either the foundation of sand or the foundation of rock on which the house is built (cf. Matt 7:24-27). The present-day, secular culture seems to hold to a loose definition of freedom: the ability to do what you want. This is the house built on sand; freedom simply as the absence of rules isn’t realistic. An incredible amount of things in our lives are governed by rules or sets of standards: sports, traffic, language, and much more. When examined more closely, those definitions are not only shallow, but not intellectually satisfying.
The Catechism of the Catholic Church weighs in with the wisdom from centuries of philosophy and theology. Freedom is “the power, rooted in reason and will, to act or not to act, to do this or that, and so to perform deliberate actions on one's own responsibility. By free will one shapes one's own life. Human freedom is a force for growth and maturity in truth and goodness; it attains its perfection when directed toward God, our beatitude.” (#1731) In one sense, this is egocentric: freedom is rooted in reason, will, and our actions. In a fuller sense than a secular definition, freedom includes far more than mere impulse.
Let’s ask the question again: so what? Why is this important? The reason is simple: freedom precedes love. Separated from the will, love cannot exist. We cannot share in the life of God—Whose essence is love—if we are not free to do so. This divine element not only adds to the complexity of freedom, but it also diverts its end: from the Catholic view, freedom is not an end in itself. It is something naturally within us thanks to our free will and intellect. Grounding freedom within the topics of faith, our intellect, free will, our moral choices, and love opens up the panorama of the mystery of the human person. That’s an awful lot to unpack! John Paul II did just that in his writings over the course of his pontificate.
Freedom, Faith, and Reason
The first step in getting anywhere close to Jesus is faith—and John Paul points out that faith does not equate to mindless obedience. On the contrary, having faith doesn’t chain up the will or the intellect. Starting with the will, “a really free commitment of the will is possible only on the basis of truth” (Love & Responsibility, pg. 117). The will is the “muscle” that has the ability to make an act of faith. John Paul described that act as one where “the intellect and the will display their spiritual nature, enabling the subject to act in a way which realizes personal freedom to the full. It is not just that freedom is part of the act of faith: it is absolutely required.” (Fides et Ratio #13). A lack of freedom makes for an empty faith. When the two are united, a great reward comes forth:
“Jesus Christ meets the man of every age, including our own, with the same words: ‘You will know the truth, and the truth will make you free’ (John 8:32). These words contain both a fundamental requirement and a warning: the requirement of an honest relationship with regard to truth as a condition for authentic freedom, and the warning to avoid every kind of illusory freedom, every superficial unilateral freedom, every freedom that fails to enter into the whole truth about man and the world.” (Redemptor Hominis #12)
Scratching the surface of John Paul’s writings on freedom can’t get very far before encountering truth. Jesus promised freedom in knowing the truth, because knowing the truth envelops the believer in Jesus Himself. He proclaimed to be the way, the truth, and the life, and to lead humanity to the Father (John 14:6).
We have two instances in the bible showing us that closeness to the truth does not erase the human will. The first is Jesus in the garden of Gethsemane. Praying in agony, Jesus asked for the cup to pass from Him, “nevertheless, not as I will, but as Thou wilt” (Matt 26:39). Mary, born without the stain of original sin, was under no commensurate obligation to become the mother of Jesus. Both Mary and Jesus had full use of their reason and intellect, and they freely chose to follow the will of God.
Freedom, Charity, and Morality
Since our intellect and will make true freedom possible, now let us delve further into what freedom is for. Again, freedom is not an end in itself, as John Paul says in a famous quote: “freedom consists not in doing what we like, but in having the right to do what we ought.” (Source Link) In his encyclical Veritatis Splendor, John Paul tries to set Catholic moral theology on a more solid course. He uses the story of the rich young man (cf. Matt 19:16-24) to draw out key themes in the discussion. In reflecting on that gospel story, he points out two key things: freedom begins with following the commandments, and once there, adhering to the commandments are not enough on their own.
The first stage, then, is when one does not break the commandments. This was the boast of the rich young man (cf. Matt 19:20). But as Jesus pointed out to him, this wasn’t enough. To be perfect, Jesus asked him to transcend the requirements of the law and align himself closer to God. “These words of Jesus… bear witness to the fundamental relationship between freedom and divine law. Human freedom and God's law are not in opposition; on the contrary, they appeal one to the other.” (VS #17) Like the recurrence of freedom and truth going together, we come again to John Paul’s frequent message to the secular culture. Freedom is made perfect in the bounds of the divine law!
The reason why is that God’s law is based on love—and everything in the Christian life is supposed to be filled with and directed toward charity. “Christ teaches us that the best use of freedom is charity, which takes concrete form in self-giving and in service. For this ‘freedom Christ has set us free’ (Gal. 5:1; cf. 5:13) and ever continues to set us free. The Church draws from this source the unceasing inspiration, the call and the drive for her mission and her service among all mankind.” (Redemptor Hominis #21) In morality, we’re not completely separate individuals who happen to live on the same planet. There is a communal dimension: our moral choices affect the entire mystical Body of Christ, whatever we may think.
John Paul reinforces the command to love in the story of Cain and Abel, saying that “every man is his ‘brother's keeper’, because God entrusts us to one another. And it is also in view of this entrusting that God gives everyone freedom, a freedom which possesses an inherently relational dimension. This is a great gift of the Creator, placed as it is at the service of the person and of his fulfilment through the gift of self.” (Evangelium Vitae #19) Freedom, joined to truth and exercised by the will, is for living a trinitarian love. It reflects God in the communion of the Holy Trinity: designed to be relational, not self-absorbed. Freedom is designed to give of oneself, not serve oneself.
Freedom and Love
Those attributes—self-giving, trinitarian, service—describe marriage, one of the great focuses of John Paul II’s pontificate. He laid out his Theology of the Body in Love and Responsibility, diving right into the contentious topics of relationships, marriage, sex, and sexuality. The starting point of that discussion had to have a solid definition of freedom. He called freedom and truth “the primary elements of the human spirit” (pg. 116). The universe is made up of carbon, hydrogen, oxygen, and many other elemental building blocks. The human spirit? Freedom and truth.
Love does limit our freedom, which “might seem to be something negative and unpleasant, but love makes it a positive, joyful and creative thing. Freedom exists for the sake of love. If freedom is not used, is not taken advantage of by love it becomes a negative thing and gives human beings a feeling of emptiness and unfulfillment. Love commits freedom and imbues it with that to which the will is naturally attracted – goodness.” (L&R, pg. 135)
Freedom needs truth to function properly and has to have the will to what is good. This was God’s plan all along, that freedom would ultimately lead us to love. Because freedom on its own, as an end, is not enough! We “long for love more than for freedom – freedom is the means and love is the end. He longs however for true love, for only if it is based on truth is a genuine commitment of freedom possible.” (L&R, pg. 135-136)
In an individualistic culture, freedom is something that not a lot of people truly understand. John Paul II showed us the way out of the dead end of secular relativism. He did this out of great love for humanity, as well as to point out the serious consequences of a secular definition of freedom as an end. When freedom is based on societal standards, the definition changes from generation to generation. When based on God, freedom takes on an eternal dimension. Like the one who trusts in the Lord, authentic Christian freedom will be like “a tree planted by water, that sends out its roots by the stream, and does not fear when heat comes, for its leaves remain green” (Jeremiah 17:8). The stream is the divine love of God, nourishing and replenishing everything it touches. Trust Our Lord when He calls you to Him! Join your free will to the truth, trusting Him in faith, and loving as He loves. In a culture that calls Catholics backward, take John Paul’s oft repeated words to heart: be not afraid!